The "hidden urbanization": Trends of impervious surface in low-density housing developments and resulting impacts on the water balance

Michael W. Strohbach, Anneke O. Döring, Malte Möck, Maycon Sedrez, Olaf Mumm, Anne Kathrin Schneider, Stephan Weber, Boris Schröder

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)


Impervious surface is an important factor for the ecological performance of the built environment, in particular for the water balance. Therefore, the rainwater drainage infrastructure of new housing developments is planned according to the expected amount of impervious surface and the resulting surface runoff. Drainage infrastructure could be overwhelmed, however, due to small, dispersed, and often overlooked increases in impervious surface cover, a process we refer to as "hidden urbanization." There is some evidence that impervious surface cover in housing areas has increased significantly over decades, but is there also a gap between planning and implementation? In order to find out, we compared eight development plans (i.e., the legally binding documents that steer building in Germany) of low-density (single-family) housing with the actual status-quo extracted from 2016 orthophotos. All sites are located in Lower Saxony, Germany; four are close to major urban centers and four are in small municipalities. We then modeled the local water balance for the plans and status-quo and compared results. All sites but one showed a relative increase between 8 and 56% of impervious surface, comparing plans with status-quo. For all sites with an increase of impervious cover, infiltration rates decreased by 4-19%, evaporation rates increased by 0.2-1% and surface runoff increased by 4-18%. In general, the more impervious surface, the stronger the effect. Our results point to a gap between planning and implementation and they underline the environmental consequences, illustrated by effects on the water balance. In order to prevent "hidden urbanization," we suggest that more emphasis should be put on integrated design of housing areas and monitoring of impervious surface cover.

Original languageEnglish
Article number29
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
Issue numberMAR
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Hydrological modeling
  • Impervious surface
  • Infiltration
  • Land consumption
  • Low-density housing
  • Surface runoff
  • Sustainability indicators
  • Urbanization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science


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